Nowadays, the Pier Head in Liverpool is as impressive a tourist area as you are liable to find. Impressively designed and maintained, and with easy access to nearby amenities and attractions, it opens out onto restaurants, museums, and a large open area dotted with sculptures and celebrations (including, inevitably, one devoted to The Beatles), which occasionally plays host to everything from Christmas Markets to a pop-up Ice Bar. Then, of course, there’s the small matter of its actual intended function as the base of operation for a certain world-famous ferry. It has a feel of being traditional and forward moving at the same time, and in a world where every last empty bus stop timetable frame has its own Twitter account, is definitely one of the attractions that it is legitimately worth shouting about.
It wasn’t always this way, though. For decades – and, significantly, throughout my childhood – the Pier Head was a bleak, miserable and minimally maintained place, sparsely decorated with collapsing and vandalised benches and the occasional notice in council livery and prone to attracting swathes of litter that only seemed to arrive several years after the drinks and chocolate bars in question had ceased trading. It offered free and convenient parking which was nonetheless what felt like an endless trek away from the main shopping area, was surrounded by buildings you would only realistically be visiting for ‘official’ reasons, acted as a magnet for truants doing that thing where they sort of leaned primarily on one leg while shouting an associate’s name in what appeared to be a formless collection of vowels, and generally seemed to be permanently haunted by noisy cold damp and yet strangely motionless wind whatever turn the weather had taken elsewhere. Even the song that it inspired felt like an unrelatable relic from ancient history, more at home with wedding anniversary parties and a local media that just wouldn’t let it go with the ‘nostalgia’ features when there were more exciting things happening right under your nose. It was, in short, what I have always suspected inspired Lee Mavers to write Liberty Ship; proof that great art can sometimes come out of, well, people walking at weird angles around haphazard paving stones with a discarded Ju’Soda carton skittering around in the middle.
Even so, I never think of the Pier Head in anything less than affectionate terms, and that is down in no small part to one factor in particular – The Mersey Pirate. Although admittedly I do have a go in this feature, it is still hard to convey in words just how much of an impact it had locally at the time. It was new, it was different, and more importantly it was ours. It didn’t just come and go either – it remained a fondly-invoked reference point for years afterwards, and chances were any local event involving the arrival of a boat (and believe me, there were a lot of them) would have resulted in someone shouting “it’s The Mersey Pirate!!” to howls of laughter. This is why I was especially pleased when something that I had considered to be very much a ‘local interest’ piece broke through to a much wider audience… but I’ll save the rest of it for the feature itself.
There is also a deeper and, well, sadder association to this feature. I was writing this in the absolute thick of the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, with Ferry Cross The Mersey rattling around my head on a continual loop; while I have no idea of Gerry Marsden’s own personal take on the issue (though I could probably take an educated guess), the phrase “and here I’ll stay” – redolent as it was with memories of my hometown and childhood, and the hardship it faced at the time that The Mersey Pirate was a going concern, contrasted with the real and tangible benefits that EU membership had later provided – became something of a totem for me during a fraught and volatile time. Indeed I occasionally used it in Tweets around the time and around the issue, which drew derisory snorts from the usual ideological thugs and their barely even cursorily disguised racism, though they never seemed that bothered with my similarly prolific deployment of The Princess cradling The Singing Ringing Tree to protect it from fire. It’s almost as if they’re easily frightened or something. Then something happened which, well, you can read more about here, and I didn’t feel like doing any more work on this until I had to. When I finally did, I found that, weirdly, the antics of a bunch of people trying to make a television show that was way beyond their technical capacity for no other reason than because they wanted to seemed to hold a deeper resonance for me than I had ever considered likely. Let’s be honest, I’d never even considered it in the first place.
On a much brighter note, you can find an extended version of this feature – including more about my own encounters with Granada Television and indeed with The Mersey Pirate itself – in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
On 2nd June 1979, arguably the weirdest idea for a Saturday Morning TV show ever – and less arguably the most technically ill-advised – set sail around the ITV regions. Launched by Granada on a wave of local talent, The Mersey Pirate was ambitious, live, witty, and conspicuously up to date with current trends in pop music. It was also broadcast live from the middle of a notoriously weather-battered body of water, and, well, a bit of a mess. But the kind of compelling, memorable and glorious mess that you just don’t get in this slicker and more sophisticated age, when people actually sit down and think before putting programmes on air.
Inspired in no small part by Gerry And The Pacemakers’ 1964 top ten hit Ferry Cross The Mersey, and the modicum of lasting international fame that this had given the handful of boats that lurch daily between Liverpool, Birkenhead and Wallasey, The Mersey Pirate commandeered long-serving ferry The Royal Iris for a weekly splash of Saturday Morning fun. Literally commandeered in fact, as the show occupied every last corner of this ad-hoc floating television studio, including – most infamously – the deck. If you’re already thinking that sounds like a somewhat precarious arrangement, then just you wait. You really haven’t heard the half of it yet.
Launched on 28th April 1951, The Royal Iris was as dedicated to leisure cruises as it was to the practicalities of daily commuting, boasting a dancefloor and stage, tea room, buffet, cocktail bar and even its own miniature fish and chip shop. Needless to say it was a popular choice for Mersey-crossing as part of days and indeed nights out, and doubtless foremost in Gerry Marsden’s thoughts when he sat down to write Ferry Cross The Mersey; though the film based on the song – now probably never likely to be seen again on account of its heavy Savile content – was actually shot aboard less elaborately-appointed rival ferry the Mountwood, while that weird colour promo film with Gerry and assorted inauthentic-looking ‘Pacemakers’ scampering about the deck with distinctly seventies haircuts was filmed on the Woodchurch. It would clearly take something more ambitious, technically complex, bewilderingly conceived and simultaneously surfing trends and not understanding what they actually were to begin with to get The Royal Iris on screen. And that’s precisely what The Mersey Pirate was.
With ATV’s groundbreaking outburst of Saturday Morning mayhem Tiswas having proved an unexpected phenomenon when it finally started edging out into other regions, rival ITV broadcasters were only too keen to get in on the act and set out to provide their own distinctive take on this wild combination of comedy, cartoons, heavy viewer interaction and general air of not particularly controlled anarchy. Quickest off the mark were LWT with Our Show, which unwisely handed over the presentational reins to ‘talented’ youngsters, and Southern with Saturday Banana, which saw Bill Oddie and Metal Mickey doing their best to achieve wackiness without even a fraction of the resources available to Chris Tarrant and company (and yes, Oddie did indeed contribute a heavily funk-inflected and tune-deficient theme song). Always one of the artier and more technologically ambitious of the ITV regional franchise holders, Granada instead took a look at what was literally to hand, and decided on a format that would involve doing their live two-and-a-bit-hours of weekend entertainment from a working ferry and using almost exclusively local talent. Thus it was that a weird geodesic dome was constructed on the deck of The Royal Iris, a hapless ‘backroom boy’ stood on top of a building in the then-rundown docklands holding out a UHF receiver, and The Mersey Pirate cast off into uncharted and decidedly choppy televisual waters.
The basic conceit of The Mersey Pirate – not a million miles from the technological truth, if we’re being honest about it – was that it was an actual ‘pirate’ broadcast, breaking in to the ITV transmission for unauthorised Saturday Morning fun with the aid of a cobbled-together broadcast setup. This was actually something of a hot topical issue at the time, with the dawn of public access media hovering close on the horizon, and Vrillion Of Ashtar Galactic Command having only recently hijacked Southern TV’s news programme to spread his intergalactic message of peace and love. A very different kind of ‘anarchy’ to Tiswas, but one that nonetheless caught the imagination of a large percentage of its target audience, and in particular the ones who could more normally be found ‘playing’ television with the aid of a modified cardboard box and reluctantly recruited ‘studio guests’.
However, with little in the way of contemporary inspiration to draw on, The Mersey Pirate looked back instead to a similar phenomenon from the recent past, and styled itself loosely on the poptastic Pirate Radio boats that had so irked and eluded the authorities in the mid-sixties, with attendant Merseybeat reference points to boot. To this end, the presenters were all assigned nautical roles; club comic Duggie Brown, then well known to viewers for his Shep’s Banjo Boys-accompanied gagsmithery on Granada’s famously ‘unpolished’ standup show The Comedians, was the nominal host, or ‘Captain’, of both the boat and the pirate broadcast. Voluble Radio City DJ Billy Butler, the very definition of ‘locally famous’, was the ‘Entertainments Manager’, alongside comedy folk-singing ‘Bolton Bullfrog’ Bernard Wrigley as the ship’s chef, up and coming actor Paul Clayton as the Chief Petty Officer, and Frank Carson as a sort of gag-crazed Long John Silver. Also along for the ride – not that any of the above were aware of it – were a couple of somewhat less reputable youngsters.
Philosophical teenage tearaway Franny Scully and his somewhat less philosophical sidekick Mooey had first appeared in the mid-seventies, in a series of short plays that Alan Bleasdale had written for Radio Merseyside. In 1977 Bleasdale adapted the plays into a best-selling novel, which led to the BBC commissioning Scully’s New Year’s Eve, an energetic and sharply funny entry in the ever-unpredictable Play For Today strand, for broadcast on 1st January 1978. Andrew Schofield and Ray Kingsley would later rerprise their respective roles as Scully and Mooey for the 1984 mini-series Scully, which is both as vivid a snapshot of rough-and-ready four letter-friendly early Channel 4 as you’re likely to find, and for an entire generation the ultimate example of the Programme You Had To Sneakily Watch On The Portable. In between came this unusual engagement, recasting the pair as stowaways who snuck aboard the ferry each week, incurring the somewhat hypocritical wrath of the ‘pirates’ but inevitably doted on by the old dears who did the actual on-board work. Ironically, given that they are the most established and well-realised characters in the whole setup, Scully and Mooey are a large part of the reason why The Mersey Pirate didn’t really ‘work’. Bleasdale’s high quality and genuinely witty material sits jarringly in the middle of other less sophisticated comic dialogue – sometimes literally in the middle of it, as there are times that it seems like he’s added their lines into someone else’s sketches – and the transition between the two is never exactly easy.
In contrast to their more cerebral musings, Duggie Brown and Billy Butler proved a particularly effective combination, with the former’s polished audience-ready approach working well against the latter’s more sharp and quick-witted pop DJ style. Bernard Wrigley lent a suitably manic air as he improvised and over-acted wildly around scripted sketch material, and Frank Carson – who of course could also be found appearing regularly on Tiswas – was essentially just Frank Carson, albeit with a neat running gag about the on-board child audience fleeing in terror from his awful puns as he read out the ‘Pirate News At Eleven’. Also perhaps more suitable for the majority of the target audience were the Dave Prowse-devised ‘keep fit’ segment Ship Shape, fashion tips from local radio presenter Therese Birch – host of the part-networked LBC children’s show Jelly Bone – in Decked Out, a weekly update on the Top Twenty, and the energetic open air games played whenever weather permitted. As we shall see, those last three words were key to the strange tale of The Mersey Pirate.
However, before Scully and Mooey become too consumed with existentialist angst, it’s worth pointing out that the show also did a great deal to reflect the more esoteric and fashion-conscious tastes of a certain percentage of its intended audience, aware as they were that strange post-punk things were happening right on their doorstep. The theme music was a frantic slap bass-led discofied reworking of Ferry Cross The Mersey, and there were plenty of filmed insert features on local artistic happenings, while The Royal Iris’ ballroom – which not that long ago had played host to The Beatles and company – became the ship’s ‘disco’, home to performances by the suspiciously hip’n’happening likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, Lene Lovich, Bad Manners and and The Undertones; in reality, they were probably the only bands who were both near enough and prepared to get up at that hour on a Saturday morning. Meanwhile, although this will have meant little to anyone outside of the immediate vicinity, Granada were keen to play up the ‘pirate broadcast’ conceit in a very real and interactive sense. Much-coveted Mersey Pirate mugs and ‘I SAW THE MERSEY PIRATE’ badges were distributed to those hardy souls who had spent the duration of the show languishing in the grim breeze-battered surroundings of the Pier Head, waiting to cheer the ship’s company back in to shore, and they even staged an ‘open day’ inviting all and sundry (including someone not a million miles from here) to wander around the ferry and see how the show was made, the results of which were filmed and shown as a mini-documentary as part of the following Saturday’s edition.
However, it was to be precisely those feats of dockside technical wizardry that would guide The Mersey Pirate onto the rocks. Adverse weather conditions would regularly cause outdoor features to be delayed or abandoned, leading to improvised fill-ins with Butler chasing Mooey and Scully around indoors, and would also wreak havoc with the precarious broadcast setup, causing sound and picture interference and even on occasion scuttling the entire programme, prompting the hasty deployment of old cartoons and film serials to fill the resultant gap in the schedules. The Mersey Pirate sailed merrily on, but a genuine squall was looming in the form of the technicians’ strike that blacked out the entire ITV network over the late summer of 1979. This unexpected interruption more or less did for the series, which would otherwise have run through to mid-September. Small wonder, then, that it’s almost impossible to accurately pinpoint exactly how many editions of The Mersey Pirate actually went out – and indeed how much of each one went out – between 2nd June and the last TV Times-billed edition on 25th August 1979.
The Mersey Pirate had certainly been given a high profile launch, with prominent TV Times listings and a coveted Look-In cover feature, but even that wasn’t enough to stop it from being washed overboard. Yet even aside from the technical problems and the sheer bad luck, its biggest stumbling block was that it was in many ways both behind and ahead of the times. The show did its best to capitalise on the rise of a new wave of Liverpool-based pop acts but was literally a couple of months too early for this; and at the same time it harked back to nostalgia for an era that even many of the Merseybeat region’s own inhabitants had yet to get properly nostalgic for. In many ways, it was an unsuccessful attempt to do what the similarly-inclined The 8:15 From Manchester would manage to pull off a decade later, proving that there maybe is something in this rivalry business after all. Some of the cast would show up in character in local panto later in the year, but to all intents and purposes that was the end of The Mersey Pirate. Granada would try again the following year with Fun Factory, a gag-heavy and decidedly indoors effort that retained Billy Butler and Therese Birch alongside newcomers Gary Crowley, Jeremy Beadle and Kurt Knobbler the robot, which proved successful enough to return in 1981. After that they perhaps wisely decided to leave Saturday Mornings to their competitors.
Unfortunately, there are apparently only two and a bit editions of The Mersey Pirate still in existence – reportedly due to technical issues preventing the live broadcasts from being satisfactorarily recorded (cue a deafening chorus of Archive TV obsessives getting angry about salt water on forums) – and neither and a bit of them appear to feature the ‘Open Day’. Meanwhile, the poor old Royal Iris was taken out of active service in 1991, upon which it was bought by a business consortium who intended to turn it into a ‘floating nightspot’ but were denied planning permission, and has basically just sat around rusting ever since. In 2010, it was reported that the RNLI had disturbed some intruders on board the boat; presumably, Scully and Mooey’s alibis are intact.
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You can find an expanded version of this feature, with more on fifties sci-fi and the early days of BBC Radio, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear more about The Mersey Pirate – and The Saturday Banana – in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Samira Ahmed, which you can find here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.